On Monday, training camp 2.0 kicked off for 24 teams across the National Hockey League. The Ottawa Senators were not one of those teams. Despite being eliminated from postseason contention, the Senators and their passionate fanbase have a lot to look forward to.
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One area of growth has been on the team’s blue line. Led in large part by the brilliance of Thomas Chabot, the Senators’ defense is not a finished product, but it is vastly improving.
As the team begins to take shape for next season, Ottawa’s defense, composed of veterans, young players, and game-changing talent, will have a different look and feel to it. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at who’s in and who’s out on the Senators blue line.
A legitimate candidate to wear the “C” as early as next season, Chabot is Ottawa’s crown jewel on defense. At 23, he has developed into one of the most electrifying and dynamic NHL defensemen. His 8-year, $68 million contract kicks in at the start of 2020-21, further cementing himself as one of the team’s most important players.
Chabot is committed to the cause in Ottawa with the intent of making the team a cup contender, sooner rather than later. With NHL players returning to the Winter Olympic Games in 2022, look for Chabot to be on Hockey Canada’s radar. Needless to say, the Sens are extremely fortunate to call him their own.
Does anybody epitomize what it means to be a Senator more than Mark Borowiecki? Born and raised in Ottawa, and known as “Boro Cop”, Borowiecki is coming off a 2019-20 campaign which included career highs in goals (seven), assists (11), and points (18). In addition, he also added 199 hits, 120 blocked shots, while logging an average 17:56 of ice time per game in 53 games.
He’s not flashy, but he’s physical, wears his heart on his sleeve, and is an excellent presence in the locker room and in the community. He’s also a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA). If I was general manager Pierre Dorion, I would do everything in my power to bring him back for another season or two.
Next up is Russian-born defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who will also be returning to the Sens lineup as part of their top-four next season. At 28 years of age, “Z’s” style of play is simple and effective. He can log big minutes, kill penalties and provides a stable presence and leadership for the plethora of prospects coming through the pipeline. This season, he averaged 22:09 of ice time, and he’ll be leaned on by head coach D.J. Smith again in 2020-21.
Since arriving via a trade with the Montreal Canadiens in January, Mike Reilly has done everything and anything asked of him and then some as a member of the Senators. A team-first player and an all-around good guy, he was a soldier for Smith and the young players this season.
A prototypical third-pairing player, with the ability to slot in as a top-four D-man, Reilly works hard, brings it every day, and is an excellent pro which should bode well for the next wave of players arriving in Canada’s capital. His $1.5 million cap hit also provides stellar value for the Senators’ salary cap situation.
A second Russian-born talent should appear on the Sens’ blue line next season in the form of Artyom Zub after the team courted and later inked him to a one-year entry-level contract. Management has liked what they’ve seen from the 24-year-old so far, and he is the ideal defensive defenseman that any team would covet.
He’s smart, makes good decisions with the puck, has good range, and has the ability to lock it down in his own end. He also has a pretty impressive international resume. Zub won a gold medal with Olympic Athletes from Russia in 2018, and bronze medals at both the 2017 and 2019 IIHF World Hockey Championships. I’m interested to see the impact he has on the Senators’ defense next season.
Like Erik Brannstrom, Andreas Englund split his time between the NHL and AHL this season. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he is an imposing figure coming off a career-high in games played with 24. The previous three seasons saw him appear in only nine NHL games in the NHL. I think Englund should benefit from a full training camp where he can slot in on the bottom-pair. His game has continued to develop, which is music to the ears of the coaching staff.
As much as I like Ron Hainsey, I have him on the outside looking in heading into next season. After joining the Senators last summer on a one-year, $3.5 million deal, Hainsey helped steer the ship in the right direction this season, appearing in 64 games and logging 20:41 of average ice time on the blue line.
With that being said, his roster spot should be allocated to an up-and-comer such as Englund or Jacob Bernard-Docker. Keep in mind, Hainsey is 39 years old and an unrestricted free agent. Although there’s a chance he may return, I envision a Senators D-core without him.
Being injured is never easy on an NHL player, but such has been the recurring case for Christian Wolanin. His 2019-20 season was derailed by a preseason injury followed by surgery and ample recovery time. When all was said and done, he only appeared in three games with the big club and nine with the Binghamton Senators of the AHL. He’ll need to have an impressive camp to crack Ottawa’s top-six next season.
Brannstrom split his time between Ottawa and Binghamton this season. He has yet to find his game at the NHL-level consistently enough to merit an everyday roster spot.
This season, he skated in 31 games, tallied four points and a minus-9 rating with 14:51 of average ice time. Another season in the “A” would do wonders for the 20-year-old’s development. The talent is there, but can he put it all together?
Lassi Thomson’s stock continues to rise. After finishing his first pro season in the Finnish Liiga with Ilves, where he showed glimpses of brilliance, the Tampere, Finland native needs to work on his defensive skills before he appears in the NHL. His toolkit is extensive, and he was named captain of Team Finland during the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championships, but his game needs to be more refined and consistent to earn a roster spot in Ottawa. As for 2020-21, he should slot into an everyday role in Binghamton.
On the Bubble
Bernard-Docker is arguably the most talented defensive prospect in the organization. Blessed with size, vision, and powerful strides, he is one of the most intriguing defensive prospects in hockey. His confidence with the puck, leadership, and ability to shut it down in his own end will be a welcome addition to an up-and-coming Sens team.
If Bernard-Docker flies out of the gate at camp, he will make life really difficult for the Senators’ coaching staff and management team. I can’t say enough good things about this player in terms of his poise and sheer raw ability. The sky is the limit for the ever-talented Bernard-Docker.
As a franchise, the Senators have an extremely bright future. From top-end forwards to a stable presence on the backend, it’s an exciting time to be a Sens fan.
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On defense, Ottawa boasts an excellent mix of youth, exuberance, skill, and experience. As we look ahead to next season, the preseason battles will be thick and fast, and a joy to follow and critique. With that being said, one thing remains certain, it will be fascinating to see what training camp will bring for the Senators.